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Mad Men blowing smoke rings: financial advertising and the political imagination

The highly acclaimed return of Mad Men to British TV brings the ethics of advertising back into the cultural foreground. Much of the humour in the series relies on the gullability of consumers in the 1950s. But, with advertising companies now attempting to reformulate the causes and nature of the current financial crisis we continue to run the risk of being duped. 

Jamie Mackay
9 April 2012

The UK premiere of the fifth season of Mad Men has galvanised cultural critics across the British media. The New Statesman and The Guardian in particular, each ran suggestive features in the past week postulating the source of this fascination, asking why contemporary viewers have been so encapsulated by the many-faces of Don Draper and his anxious cohort. The commentaries have been predictable, citing a similar ‘culture of insecurity’ and ‘age of greed’, but such emotive observations gloss over important differences between post-war America and the present day. We are all familiar with the caricature of the sleazy exec, reclining sybaritically in an office filled with cigarillo smoke, bourbon and softcore pornography. But in a time of financial crisis, where rising inequality has so stifled mobility, the emergence of the Mad Men phenomenon presents a powerful reminder for the need to maintain a diligent awareness of the culturally specific content of the adverts themselves.

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In the programme’s first episode ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, Don Draper declaims imperiously on the nature of advertising - “Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK”. This conflation of metaphor and super-ego foregrounds an issue that is frequently trivialised among lofty talk of the ‘post-ideological society’, that is the extent to which adverts act as sites of psychological and moral legitimation. The seemingly innocuous images of a perplexed dog or accelerating car hide a complex code of signs and symbols; a Las Vegas-like excess of signification which imposes a subterranean cryptography into the public imagination. In these terms, advertisers take the role of orchestrators, making some values justified and others not, deflecting responsibility for any unexpected failures of this elaborate code from anywhere but the economic system on which their paychecks depend.

But this is not the 1950s, and when “whatever you’re doing” is placing stakes on flashing rows of digital numbers - while the taxpayer waits patiently to pick up the all too real pieces – the ante is not just a question of private freedom, of Don Draper’s unchecked retreat into hedonistic pleasure, but the justification of a public gambling culture with far-reaching political consequences. The market fundamentalism with which advertising has become entwined is vastly different to that of the zeitgeist of strong manufacturing, material prosperity and economic boom of the Eisenhower years. While valuable as a trigger for historical reflection, the ‘universal’ and increasingly globalised Don Draper stereotype runs the risk of dampening critique – of becoming the joke that masks the reality that there really are ethical and political questions to be asked of the advertising industry specific to today.

As such, for the UK in 2012, the prospering of financial advertising emerges as a key development, something easily differentiated from Mad Men’s engrossing portrayal of how to maximise the profits of companies such as ‘Bethlehem Steel’. Establishing the parameters of such an analysis requires breaking through a misguided sensation of ‘immunity’ prevalent in much of our society. We feel we know the techniques of advertising. By considering the narratives developed since the financial crisis, however, the greater proliferation of expected strategies of manipulation quickly becomes apparent.

Many of the tactics employed in financial adverts are grounded in the canon of manipulations exposed in Mad Men, but the most evident development, and one that has been prevalent in the UK particularly since 2008, is establishing the unquestioned ‘omnipresence’ of big banking. As in the domain of the ephemeral online sphere, where imageboard metonyms of Goldman Sachs quietly slide down the periphery, this strategy is equally well established in television and physical media. In narrative terms, this ‘omnipresence’ is often manifest spatially – something particularly observable in a recently banned RBS television advert. Indeed, of the regulation that does occur – by the independent Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) – the focus is overwhelmingly on the ethical parameters of this tactic.  The tagline of this advert, which reads ‘last bank in town’, was declared “misleading” by the ASA after a number of complaints from across the UK that the campaign coincided with a program of regional branch closures in Scotland and the North of England.

Also implicated in the investigation were two adverts for the RBS-owned NatWest. The first depicts a deserted coastal landscape with two uniformed staff talking about the local dedication of their bank. The soon to be made jobless are here concealed by a perverse theatrical simulacra. A second advert from the same campaign is set in an idyllic pastoral village complete with quaint Tudor style houses. The mobile-bank with its pristine uniformed attendant emerging, almost like a milk float or public library, as a vital part of the community. Both can be seen as part of an intentional strategy to counteract the impact of downsizing. That even as branches close - precisely because of this - the bank must obtain greater presence in public imagination as occupying even the most barren corners of the country.

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What truly demonstrates this ‘omnipresence’, however, is the extent to which the emphasis on the provinicial co-exists with an à la mode urbanity. Sticking with RBS as an example, just as the ‘last bank in town’ advert serves to reinforce the rural, so too Edinburgh is foregrounded in a parallel campaign from the same period. The appeal to a national centre, coinciding with the 5th May victory for the SNP, is based on the image of the sun rising over the city. This blatant exploitation of the ‘Scottish Spring’ – alongside the appropriation of a prominent Enlightenment motif - positions the bank as a catalyst in the energy of a modern, progressive Scotland where RBS (despite for years withdrawing support for Scottish business) embodies the dreams of progressive nationalism.

Through this merging of images of the city and country to create a representation of the national, these RBS adverts can be clearly distinguished from British adverts for MasterCard and American Express, which utilise an absence of national identity to ensure ‘omnipresence’. The minimalist ‘sculpture’ and negative photography of the Mastercard advert mimics the aesthetics of the modern metropolitan art gallery; the location is Spain but it could be anywhere. Likewise, where national tropes are visible, as in the American Express adverts, they are used anecdotally within a stereotypical and transhistorical frame where Italian Spaghetti and the Eiffel Tower are linked by iPods and electric guitars.

This appeal to the aesthetic taste and political temperament of the Starbucks liberal is in both cases playful and vogue, but there is a stronger injunction below the surface. The Mastercard advert, whose insistence on “priceless” experience masks the very real price of a New Year’s Eve in Madrid, inverts the logic by which it is the financial sector itself which engages in the ‘financialising’ of values that are, or should be, non-monetary. In the case of the American Express advert any possibility of resisting this through ‘old’ notions of collectivity are disrupted. Here credit = freedom; not just to explore the world but to transcend its supposedly rigid categories (i.e the nation) in an aggressively nostalgic consumption of stereotyped cultural identities. The end point of this process is embodied in the ‘utopian’ Standard Charter advert (released in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis) in which the world is reduced to a shimmering island of glass towers where the very air pulses with elemental energy.

‘Omnipresence’ might therefore be seen as arising from a violence inflicted upon our imagined social geographies – forcing the world into bizarre heterotopic spaces - but a similar manipulation can be seen in the domain of physical geography, or more specifically the appropriation of images of ecological catastrophe. A recent example of this is the Nationwide advert which is set on a carousel in the centre of a bare, post-apocalyptic forest. After a flashy montage of office and family scenes all within the confines of the carousel a message appears: ‘Nationwide, on your side’.

Here, the bank takes the role of friend, a ‘safe space’, a companion in a world that has seen a Beckettean Endgame-like scenario. Financial anxieties are translated into existential anxieties and it is Nationwide who are presented in pseudo-religious fashion as the light among the darkness. Not only is this exploitative in the extreme, asserting the bank as a transcendental institution, it also serves to naturalise the crisis. The advert’s ‘safe’ versus ‘unsafe’ opposition is in fact a reversal of the man-made political paradigm which led to the crisis. It is as if the crisis were ‘out there’, an unavoidable plague from which Nationwide alone - far from having had a role in its inception - can provide protection and, beyond this, redemption.

While the image of the carousel and fostering of dependence therefore initiates an infantalisation of the viewer, this process is taken further in the most recent series of Lloyds adverts ‘For the Journey’. A whole tranche of cheerful 3D characters excitedly dart around engaged in various sporting activities while the melody of a half-hummed ‘aria’ provides a hallucinatory appendage. This rejection of realism presents, like so many children’s programmes, a distinctly partisan allegory of the modern condition. Like the Brothers Grimm, the horror of austerity and unemployment is positioned behind a style that is sugar sweet, vivid and constantly moving. Similarly, in the adverts for the parasitical Wonga.com, where the decay and fragility of the impoverished body are candidly foregrounded, the aesthetic of the puppet show and preoccupation with ‘generational comedy’ provides a counteragent: the unreal reality of the moshing grandfather hides the real unreality of economic exploitation.

The above is just a small sample of the extensive processes of manipulation and misdirection through which the advertising industry has written a profit making script from the economic crisis. A combination of culture jamming, graffiti and online activism has done much to reveal the operations of this but it has not gone far enough. Resisting the seductive impulses of this industry requires an acute awareness of the ever-pervasiveness of ideology and a consistent process of ‘re-minding’ though caricature and mimicry. Programmes such as Mad Men must be understood not as simple entertainment, or not merely so, but as the starting point for contemporary critique and a rallying call for political engagement. Diverting the symbolic logic by which this crisis is narrativised is an important step in liberating the public imagination from violent structures that continue to prop-up un-democratic bodies in ever inventive ways. 

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